Pulling a Decent Festival Sound Mix
It’s a big stage and a big crowd… but there’s no soundcheck! What do you do if you’re confronted by a situation like this for the first time? Well, the trick lies in preparation… and nerves of steel.
Text: Gavin Tempany
Have you ever been to a large music festival, with two stages side by side, where the music never stops? Isn’t it fantastic? All day you get to watch band after band grace the stage with no gaps in between. Have you ever wondered how it might be for the tech crew at these events?
Think about it, Stage 1’s band finishes and Stage 2’s band starts up within about a minute, usually sounding pretty close to the mark, right out of the blocks, with no sound through the PA beforehand. Of course, the band themselves haven’t even played their instruments at this point (that would ruin the rock ‘n’ roll smoke and mirrors effect). That’s been taken care of by the stage technicians. What’s more, the instruments are only played one at a time (for a short period of time – say around 15 seconds) while the on-stage band is playing next door, to ensure that the backline check can’t be heard over the top of them.
Did I mention all of this is done listening on headphones? The first time the sound engineer hears the band through the PA, the audience hears it as well. If you were in this situation how would you go about it?
Like all good trade practitioners, success is 99% preparation and 1% perspiration – corny, I know, but in this case 110% true. I certainly don’t claim to have the festival mixing caper down pat, but in an attempt to get it straight in my head, here’s a bit of a thought process.
TURN ON, TUNE IN, DROP OUT
All bands have some form of backline they tour with everywhere: guitars, snare drums, cymbals, keyboards etc. Getting this gear sorted so it’s reliable and great sounding is the most important first step you must take in your quest for festival mix glory. Let’s face it, if the gear you’re turning up with doesn’t work first time every time, one day you’re only going to turn up silence through the PA – silence may be golden, but not at a rock festival. So make sure all of your touring backline is in absolute tip-top condition. Even if it’s not the best equipment money can buy, what you’re looking for is consistency. Every time things are plugged in, they should emit the same sound. When was the last time your backline was serviced? How many of you know a player that just has to use one particular pedal, but 1 in 10 times that pedal doesn’t work? Is there an alternative you can suggest?
Hint: I can highly recommend a production rehearsal if you can do one. See if you can get the band booked to do a gig somewhere a week or so before the festival, use it as a dry run to test all of the gear and see how you would setup a mix. This will prepare you for the rough levels that you would expect from the instruments. This is not always possible, of course, but if you’re mixing the band for the first time, it’s highly recommended.
CONSISTENCY – ALL THE TIME
You know how they say ‘behind every great man is a great woman’? Well, similarly, in front of every respected sound mixer is a band and stage crew that have their departments under control: a guitarist (or guitar tech) who can dial up the sound on a hired amp, a drummer (or drum tech) who can set up the same sound every time… It also really helps if the technicians know how their players like their monitors to sound.
Someone once told me ‘the bigger the freight bill the bigger the band’. This rings true in that most of the bands headlining the large summer festivals rarely use the supplied backline, deciding instead to bring all of their own equipment. But this isn’t an egotistical manoeuvre to show off the size of their chequebooks… and it’s not about sound quality either. It’s about consistency.
Personally, I like to tour my own mics and DIs everywhere. This is a real luxury that affords me peace of mind – I know my gain settings at the FOH board are going to be similar each time. Every day, the exact same mic goes on the same instrument in the exact same spot. I know touring all of your own mics isn’t a luxury every band can afford, but I can, at the very least, suggest touring DIs. Why DIs? These are the things that will often change in gain most from model to model. You can buy inexpensive DIs at your local musical instrument shop, and their consistency will be their greatest asset. That’s all I use. Regardless of cost, it’s all about the consistency of the equipment chain.
ON THE DAY – RESEARCH & LISTEN
On your way from the stage to the FOH tower is usually a good time to have a listen to how the PA’s distributing the sound to the audience. Definitely have a listen to the bass and treble response on the extremes and in the centre of the crowd. Now for the final part of your walk, when you step into the FOH tower, check the changes in bass and whether things have tended to dull a bit. The FOH mixing consoles are usually on a scaffold riser, so things sound very different in there compared to out in the crowd. The wooden boards of the scaffolding will tend to resonate, giving you more bass response than out in the crowd. Then, if your desk is at the back of the tower, have a listen back there compared to at the front. Usually the combination of canvas tent and riser will change the sound dramatically. At some festivals there are three hangs of PA: left, centre and right. I’ve done many shows where I have been at the back of the tent and haven’t been able to see one of the stacks, let alone hear it properly. Tricky if you rely on panning things!
MEET YOUR RIGGER
Usually I’ll say hello to the FOH rigger, and if they have the time, I’ll always ask them if they’ve noticed anything that I should be aware of on the day. One of the first questions pertains to what I call the ‘speed limit’. How loud you are allowed to mix? This will be given to you in decibels (dB). It’s usually around 100dB(A). Sometimes this is measured at the desk and other times at the perimeter of the festival.
Most of the bigger festivals run a one-minute averaged SPL reading. This means that over the elapsed time you have to be under the set limit. If this measurement is not done where you can see it, then you have really no idea until you get told to ‘turn it down’. So don’t take offence. You don’t want to be the guy who pays the fine for being over the limit or responsible for the festival having to move site next year. I’m prepared to wager that your fee won’t cover 5% of the fine!
WHAT DOES THIS BIG RED BUTTON DO?
When you’re allowed to get your hands on the gear, what to do first? At this point, everyone is different, but I’ll talk you through my regime. First thing I do is plug in my headphones. They are the only things that I carry to FOH at every show. They are my point of reference beyond which everything else can be different every day. At this point, the guys on stage may still be setting up the backline, so I start to prepare myself for the line check, quick though it may be.
If you’re at a ‘multi-desk’ festival, you may want to ask the FOH rigger to turn your board off at the matrix mixer. Doing this will let you listen to the actual mix you are dialling up, including effects, and making sure that everything is actually going to end up at the output. But this comes with a no-blame caveat… You have to remember to ask to be turned back on again! It’s not good protocol to touch anything other than your desk, effects and inserts, but only you are to blame if you’re not turned back on again. Having said that, even the best FOH rigger may be busy at the start of your set, so observe how they turn you off, just in case. This will usually point to how the PA is distributed around the venue – useful info to file in the back of your mind.
At this stage I also usually acquaint myself with my external effects and dial up a few ‘get-me-out-of-trouble’ ’verbs and delays to kick things off. And of course, you will already know what your act requires, having listened to their recordings and having made notes… because you’re well prepared, right?
ASSIGNMENTS: HOMEWORK PAYS OFF
Next, check the desk’s current state: VCA, mute and audio group assignments. If you don’t know how to run the automation, no problem, ask your friendly FOH rigger. Set these to your preferred working mode, check that things turn on and off as they should, and that when you unmute at show time, you have all of the channels.
I route nearly every channel direct to the mix bus these days, bypassing all the subgroups. This may seem a bit strange, as it flies in the face of common mixing practise, but my reason for this is that it’s one less place to make a mistake with muting, and adjusting audio groups will still leave any effects for the instrument at the original level. VCA groups are a much better weapon of choice here, because they control the level before the fader and, in turn, any post-fade effect sends. There are usually more than enough VCAs to control the vital elements of a band. VCAs also usually have a light that comes on when you’re at unity gain – great for later on when riding the guitar solo and coming back to exactly where you were irrespective of the channel(s) settings. Another bonus: as VCAs are purely a level control, the panning of the channels is maintained without any extra work (or errors). How many times have you routed the bass to Group 3, and realised that it is only coming out of the left speaker because you missed the fact the group was panned left? This is quite tricky to pick up if you’re only hearing two of three stacks.
Look at the auxiliary sends levels. Remember where the levels of the sends are from the previous band so that you can be in the ballpark. If you are the first guy dialling it up for the day, then set the levels to unity. Check the input at the effects units and set up the return channel gains when you do the line check.
Resist the urge to jump in there and start madly going for it. A calculated and calm approach will get you there faster.
LINE CHEQUE – TIME TO EARN YOUR MONEY
By now the stage guys are probably just about ready for a line check. This should be co-ordinated so that all of the instruments are played one at a time, in a set order. There will be a talk-to-monitor board and/or a talk-to-stage mic. Make sure you know how to get this going. Usually a line check starts with the drums. I would say that right about here is the most critical part of your day. If things don’t sound EQ’d perfectly out of the box, you can fudge that a bit, but if the blend of instruments is way out, that is quite obvious to the general audience member.
Here’s a tip that can work with rock bands: If you set every fader you’re using to zero as you progress across the board, and by adjusting the gain have the VU meter hitting around –3 on peaks you may well be very close when you unmute. This basically sets every instrument at equal loudness, while giving you enough headroom at the master fader to be around 0dBu on the output meters with a full band. It also means that, with the faders set at zero, when you PFL (Pre Fade Listen) a channel, it’s going to be close in level to how it will sound relative to the other channels in the mix.
Next, check all of the high-pass filters – your bass channel may be where the last bands overheads were. As you work your way through the line check, make sure all of your comps and gates are working in about the right range. You don’t really want anything drastic here, that can be done afterwards. Don’t spend more than a few seconds setting up your gates and comps on each channel. At this stage you’re just making sure you don’t get any nasty surprises later.
Check the phasing of the drums between each other and especially with the overheads. You will need to do the complete drum line check and then go back to the snare and toms to confirm the phasing with your current gain settings. In general, I wouldn’t spend more than about 15 seconds at most on each instrument. You have to be able to do this fast. Err on the side of leaving the EQ flatter on the channel rather than EQ’ing it hard. It’s more difficult to put back the frequencies you’ve carved out, compared to cutting while the show is going on.
Bonus tip: Most stage crew talk into mics a lot louder than artists sing into them. Don’t be afraid of going a bit over zero for the vocals. Not many people go home singing the kick drum pattern, so for me the vocals can never be loud enough anyway!
At this point you have to remember that the FOH is only one mix and that monitors have up to 10 mixes to get right (especially if they’re relying on in-ears), and will need as much time as you can spare to get those going. I find it best if the monitor operators run the line check and that you respond only by letting the stage know you’re happy with the FOH sound for the instrument, or if you need a special request to hear it longer. If the monitors are closer to being right, then your band will play much better – they’ll sound tighter and be easier to mix as a result.
So at the end of checking all of the required channels you should now be close in terms of gain, EQ, dynamics and effects. From here I would go back over the channels again, making sure that nothing’s been missed. I ask myself questions like: Is everything assigned to the correct routing? Are all of the VCAs I need set to zero and unmuted? Do I have the effects faders set so that when the lead singer walks on stage and shouts ‘Hello Yackandandah!’ it’s not reverbed and delayed like The Edge?
After feeling as prepared as I can be, I’ll mute the channels, set my master fader to unity, and have the board turned back on at the matrix.
TAKE A BREATH
So you’re pretty close to show time. Time to relax for a bit and have a think about the process and how you’d like the set to unfold. Remaining calm is very important. Think about how you would like to fade the ‘between band’ music, and what you are going to unmute and when. I like to unmute the vocals to make sure that they are not going to feed back. I push them a bit to see how much gain I have before feedback. And by unmuting the vocals prior to the band’s arrival also confirms I’m sending audio from my board to the PA – which always comes as a relief
Time to play the intro tape, if you have one. Personally, I much prefer that this is played from the stage. It means that there’s no chance of the band making a mad dash from the dressing room when they hear their intro tape going. This can and does happen. Leave instruments that may pop (bass guitars, acoustic guitars) until the last moment to unmute. Gently place your hand on the master fader, ready to make sure you don’t blow anything up. Breathe in and wait for the hi-hats to count…
Time to actually do some work shifting air. I only realised this year that I have been in the business of shifting air for a living for a long time now. Some people have a real job… I move air… but I digress.
THROWN IN AT THE DEEP END
It’s almost guaranteed you will not be 100% satisfied with how it sounds immediately, but then why would we do this job if we can’t critique our own work? Resist the urge to jump in there and start madly going for it. A calculated and calm approach will get you there faster. In the first 16 bars of the song, the balance of the mix is the thing you should work on first. The tone of the instruments should come later. Your first priorities should be to make sure the master meters aren’t pegging, you’re under or on the speed limit and that you can hear the vocals, bass, kick and snare. This will get you out of trouble most of the time until you get the time to really take in how it’s sounding.
Adjusting the gains and leaving the faders at unity until you’re really sure you have it together may be a good way to move forward here.
After you’re getting closer to a good mix, make sure you can hear everything you can see on stage. Listen to your mix. Can you hear everything? Glance at your dynamics rack. Hopefully you’re not blinded by gain reduction LEDs on the compressors. Is anything looking out of place? How are your effects sounding?
Have a quick walk to the front of the tent: how does it sound compared to the back of the tent? Think, digest, reassess.
Now it’s time to finesse the faders.
MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU
This should get you a little closer next time you have to do a blind mix. I had a chat to a few engineers I really respect and we all agreed: regardless of how well the festival is organised, it’s still a bit like Russian Roulette – you can’t eliminate every last gremlin or nasty surprise. In recent times I’ve been crazy enough to practise festival-style mixing at club show soundchecks. This prepares you for the moment you need to do it for real.
Best of luck, and maybe I’ll see you in the trenches at a festival soon!